The Great Smog of 1952

Feb 24, 2021 0 comments

Londoners are no stranger to the cold, but on the morning of December 5, 1952, the sting of winter was felt worse than ever. The cold had the British capital on a grip for weeks, and that morning a temperature inversion had caused the chilled and stagnant air to get trapped close to the ground, causing temperature to drop even further.

As the city began to wake up, coal fireplaces were lighted in homes and businesses across the city to take the chill out of the morning air. Smoke from these hearths, as well as soot from London’s numerous factories and exhaust from automobiles combined with the cold air to create a thick, blackish-yellow fog. By nightfall, the fog became so bad that visibility dropped to a few meters. In some areas, people couldn’t see their own feet. It was “like somebody had set a load of car tires on fire.”

The Great Smog of 1952

Trafalgar Square in London during the Great Smog of 1952. Photo: TopFoto / The Image Works

The smog smothered the city for five days. Transportation came to a virtual standstill. Flights were grounded and trains cancelled. Only the Underground was running. Ambulance services were affected, leaving people to find their own way to hospitals. The fog even seeped indoors though windows and doors. Plays and concerts were cancelled because the audience were unable to see the stage.

Remarkably, there was no panic as Londoners were accustomed to fog. But the death toll increased. Most of the victims were the very young and the elderly with pre-existing respiratory problems. Estimates of how many people died during that period vary from 6,000 to as high as 12,000.

The Great Smog of 1952

A man rides a bike through the smog. Photo: TopFoto / The Image Works

London has had a smog problem for centuries. As early as the 13th century, smoke from the burning of coal in fireplaces and in factories combined with London’s characteristic cool and misty weather to create a thick fog with the consistency of pea soup. As the city expanded, the air pollution grew worse and the fog became more severe. London’s East End was affected the most, because of the large number of factories and homes in that area. The East End was also low lying that prevented fog from dispersing.

In the weeks leading up to the Great Smog of 1952, the weather was unusually cold with heavy snowfalls across the region. To keep warm, people were stoking fire all round the clock and smoke was pouring out of every chimney in London. Under normal condition, smoke rises up through the atmosphere and disperses. But an anticyclone was forming over the region, which pushed the air down causing it to warm as it descended. This created a temperature inversion, where the air closer to the ground is cooler than the air higher up. When smoke came out of the chimneys, it got trapped under the layer of warm air.

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: TopFoto / The Image Works

Additionally, after the end of World War 2, Britain’s homes and factories were forced to burn low-grade coal that produces more sulphur dioxide. The better-quality coals such as anthractite were exported to help pay off war debts. Additional pollution and smoke was contributed by vehicles and diesel buses which had replaced the recently abandoned electric tram system. The UK’s Met Office estimated that every day during the smoggy period more than 1,000 tons of smoke particles, 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 140 tons of hydrochloric acid, 14 tons of fluorine compounds and 370 ton of sulphur dioxide were pumped into the choking air.

A direct consequence of the Great Smog of 1952 was the passing of the Clean Air Act 1956, which banned the burning of anthracite and decreed that residents of urban areas and operators of factories should burn only smokeless fuels, or convert to other alternatives such as electricity, and gas. The Act was a significant milestone towards the protection of the environment. Nevertheless, smog continued to be a problem for London. Another lethal fog engulfed London in December 1957 resulting in a thousand deaths, and again in 1962 with approximately 750 casualties.

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

Air pollution is still one of humanity’s biggest problems that’s intricately linked to even bigger issues such as climate change. Every year, an estimated seven million people die as a direct result of air pollution. But the loss to the environment and the price all lives on this planet has been paying due to climate-induced changes like increased heat, drought, flooding and insect outbreaks, is incalculable.

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

The Great Smog of 1952

Photo: Carl Mydans/the Life Picture Collection/getty Images

References:
# Britannica Encyclopedia
# Wikipedia
# MET Office UK

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